Ok, whatever, I'm over it. I'm surprising myself here by actually writing about this game, but I guess I'm so numb to disappointment as a Gopher fan that like, no big whoop. So here are 10 things I liked and didn't like about the Illinois game.
1. First off, the defense was fine. There are plenty of ugly stretches you can blame on the Gophers' defense this year, but last night wasn't one of them. Kendrck Nunn torched them and the Illini hit 8 of 13 threes, and giving up 1.09 points per possession isn't ideal, but then again giving up 1.09 ppp to a team that hit 62% of it's threes isn't bad. Minnesota held Illinois to 34% on 2-pointers and created a turnover on a respectable 19% of the Illini's possessions. And, contrary to brain dead Shon Morris's contention, most of those threes were tough shots. One or two might have come from a defensive breakdown (I remember one by Mo in the corner) but in general Illinois was hitting tough shots from deep. Sucks.
2. The Gopher offense was horrendous. Obvious enough to anybody watching, but Illinois played the same style defense the Gophers did, sagging in the paint to take away the drive and daring the Gophers to shoot. And boy did they fall for it. They hit a very nice 58% from 2, but took 25 freaking three pointers, hitting just four, and turned the ball over 26% of the time leading to a disastrous 0.86 points per possession which will never, ever win a game. This was one of the ugliest games I can remember watching in quite a while.
3. The whole team was embarrassingly flat last night and just totally out of it. How many balls went through hands? How many passes were off the mark? How many loose balls did the Gophers come up with? Most importantly, how the hell do you get called twice for not stepping all the way out of bounds to throw the ball in after a made Illini bucket? Twice! It rarely happens at all. The refs generally give a generous amount of leeway on that play, but the two called on the Gophers last night were so egregious the refs had no choice but to call them. I'm not even sure Eliason had one foot out of bounds on the one they called on him, let alone two. Just an embarrassing game in every respect.
4. Has Andre Hollins lost his point guard skills? I know DeAndre Mathieu is definitely the #1 point guard with Hollins the shooting guard, but wasn't the plan for Hollins to be the PG when Matheiu is on the bench? His assist numbers are drastically down, and last night he became Malik Smith, putting up 13 shots with 11 of them coming from three. Maybe it's an ankle issue, but he's looked fine the last two games, at least in that respect. The Gophers have two players who can create their own shot and create shots for others, and when one of them becomes a stand still jump shooter there are going to be problems.
5. Maybe we should do away with the autosit in the first half with two fouls. It's clear at this point that Mathieu is the team's most important player and per my previous point the offense stagnates when he's not on the floor, so maybe playing an entire 12 minutes stretch without him isn't the best thing to do. The Gophers led 14-3 when he went out with his second foul. There is nothing worse to me than sticking to dumb, rigid rules. It was clear the Gophers needed Mathieu back in before Illinois crawled all the way back, but because "the book" says to sit 'em the first half if he has two fouls he never got back off the bench. Stupid.
6. Mo Walker is becoming unstoppable. Last night 5-7 shooting for 10 points, and one of the prettiest moves I can remember seeing from any Gopher post man in quite some time. Against Maverick Morgan he was able to use his size and strength to just bull his way to the rim, and against Egwu he used great footwork, footwork I didn't know he had, to get his shots. Walker needs to become a focal point, if not the focal point, of this offense going forward, and I don't mean as the screener on pick-and-rolls. The PF picking Walker's man on one block to spring him going across the lane and establishing position on the other block needs to be a staple for this team for the next two years.
7. I started the year hating Joey King, but I seem to find myself writing positive things about him every time I write lately. His offensive game continues to blossom week-by-week as he understands more and more that the team needs him to be a power forward and not just a three point specialist. He's added a little bit of a post game, which I wrote about last time, and in this game he did a really nice job passing the ball out of the high post, even totaling what I assume is a career high 4 assists. The one thing he does that is killing me is when he pump fakes at the three point line and gets his man to leave his feet - and then does nothing or just passes it off. Freaking put the ball on the ground and move, man! Even if it's just to side step and shoot a three do something! You've gained an advantage, don't squander it.
8. King's counterpart, however, was pretty much ignored and invisible. If you watched last night the Gophers ran several pick and rolls with Oto as the screener, and none of them came close to working on any level because Illinois didn't care what Oto did. Every time he'd pop out to the wing, but Illinois's defense would just double the ball handler and force him the other way. Oto would do the right thing and cut baseline to the opposite corner, but it was such an aggressive double team I think they managed to find him exactly once for a possible shot, which ended up either a turnover or a missed shot I don't remember. Might have been nice to actually roll towards the basket and see if that opened something up elsewhere, because the way they ran this with Oto it was worthless.
9. Daquein McNeil is going to be really good. If nothing else he's going to be a heady, smart guard and a plus defender. I don't think he's ever going to be a really dynamic scorer or distributor, but he should develop into the kind of off guard who can knock down the open shot, drive if it's there, and limit his mistakes. Take that along with his tremendous defense already, which should just get better, and he's got real potential. We've seen him play good defense in spurts, and he did a great job against Drew Crawford in the Northwestern game, but now he's getting more consistent with it. I noticed last night that he does a thing Aaron Craft is really good at in that he can sneak between his man and a ball screen, reducing the need for any kind of hedge while at the same time avoiding going under the screen and giving up a possible open jumper. It's a valuable skill, and McNeil already seems to have it.
10. Now we can relax. There certainly isn't a bright side to this loss, but if you stretch far enough to can at least talk yourself into thinking you'll enjoy the games more now that you can watch the rest of the games stress free. There's now zero reason to expect the Gophers to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and the really sad thing is it's not their performance against the top tier teams that's keeping them out, but a combined 2-4 against Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois. With a very difficult schedule the rest of the way just sit back and enjoy the ride, and enjoy speculating on what teams we might get to see at the Barn in the NIT/CBI/CIT.
It's going to be nice for me to not worry too much about it the next couple of weeks because I'm going to be on a bit of a whirlwind. Next week I will be in New Mexico for the entire week (hopefully I'll get up to some drunk posting like old times), then I'm back for half a week and off to Florida for vacation for a week and a half. So it'll be nice to not be obsessing over the Gophers. Expect posts from New Mexico for sure, and probably one or two at least from Florida, just don't expect them to be 100% Gopher stuff. Kind of liberating.